Wealth and Political Inequality in the U.S. Congess
How does the wealth of members of Congress affect electoral politics and governance, and what are the implications of wealth inequality among elites for their behavior and opportunities for influence? By expanding and supplementing existing data, this dissertation aims to add to our understanding of whether and how wealth inequality —the simple fact that some individuals are rich while others are relatively poor— translates into political inequality in the U.S. Congress. In four related, yet substantively different, chapters, this dissertation explores how wealth (or a relative lack thereof) potentially shapes the careers and behaviors of members of Congress. I begin by characterizing the patterns of wealth and economic inequality among members who are elected to the U.S. House of Representatives between 1980 and 2012. I show that, contrary to conventional wisdom, members of Congress are not always drawn from the highest economic strata, and members in the bottom quintile are far more similar to the average citizen (in terms of wealth) than they are to the average Representative. I then show the consequences of this inequality in terms of electoral strategies, legislative activities, and representation. Throughout the dissertation I describe how personal resources and institutional arrangements help empower the wealthiest legislators at the expense of their less-wealthy peers. Specifically, I empirically demonstrate that, all else equal, the wealthiest members of the House seem more likely to be able to: raise more money for reelection, deter quality challengers, and be more effective in their lawmaking activities, relative to their less-wealthy peers. The relationships my dissertation uncovers provide insights about political inequality in contemporary congresses, and why concerns about the consequences of economic inequality apply to elites, as well as the mass public.